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The velvet touch

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C.K. MEENA

From stubbornly ticking meters to three-handkerchief sob stories, auto drivers have a range of innovative methods to separate you from your money

I can give you proof that there is life after death because I have been in an auto where the meter ticks although the driver has killed the engine. I swear this is true. The driver turned off the ignition at a signal and the meter went up by 50 paise. Petrol lingering in the tube, I thought, but 30 seconds later there was another click. And another, and another. At the next signal, when the fare had gone up by a further two rupees, I could contain my alarm no longer."What kind of magic is this?" I asked. "The meter is running by itself."Without turning a hair he replied, "Waiting charge."As though that explained everything. I was so dumbfounded by the technical miracle that I could not argue with him. To my immense relief, the lights were green for the rest of the journey. Now and then, destiny ordains that I am gypped. There's no avoiding it, but I do wish the operator who separates me from my money would do it painlessly, preferably with an anesthetic. I admire the velvet touch. The driver who drops me home at 9.30 p.m. knows he's not entitled to ask me for one-and-a-half. But he'll shut his eyelids prayerfully for a second or two and tell me in a saintly manner, "Whatever you wish you can give me, ma." This automatically makes me peel off an additional ten from my wallet and gives me a halo bright enough to light the way to my flat.The crudest operation is tampering with the meter. As the numbers move rapidly upward I form a mental picture of the numbers in my modest bank balance moving equally rapidly downward, and I begin to frown and shift restlessly in my seat. I'm being diddled with my eyes open - my loss may be small but my distress is great. Once I ordered the man who was robbing me blind to stop midway. I caught another auto. The meter was accurate but when I got off, the driver made a polite request. Could I give him Rs 10 above the fare? Because, you see, he was actually going in some other direction but when I approached him he didn't have the heart to say no. Surely a ten was more than reasonable for the special favour he had done me? As he accepted the money he told me kindly not to worry (bejaaru maad-bedi). I know what you're thinking: if I'd stuck to the swindler's auto the fare would have been... I'm saving the best for the last. This operator is in a class of his own. A fair man with a moustache and light brown eyes, he lurks about the Noor Adi Raste in Indiranagar and if he thinks you're a likely mark he'll invite you into his auto, nay, insist that you board it."Madam! I didn't expect to see you here. Get in, get in. Where are you going? I'll drop you, forget the meter, tell me where you're going. You've forgotten me, haven't you? Ah, madam has forgotten me. I am Bhat, don't you remember? Tell me, where have you seen me?" As you're chewing over the question he supplies the answer, or seems to. "The bank. Now do you remember? Which bank, tell me?"Of course you supply the name of your bank and he confirms it."I was the cashier and you used to come there all the time." Your suspicions aroused, you ask him which branch he worked in and he says Malleswaram. You tell him quite firmly that you've never been to that branch."You are Geetha madam, aren't you?" he asks, changing tack. "Geetha madam who lives in Jayanagar? No? But you look just like her! Same face, same hair, same clothes. Sorry sister, I thought you were her. Please don't mistake me, sister. She always used to chat with me when I was the cashier."Your next logical question would be, "If you were a bank cashier, why are you driving an auto now?" Even as the words leave your lips you know it's the question he's been waiting for.The curtain goes up and the play begins. It is a melodrama that involves an impossible sequence of tragic events. The hero loses his job, has spinal surgery (he lifts his shirt and shows you scars running across his back), takes a loan for an auto, and then his family members start dying like flies. Too many deaths - that's the major flaw in the script. His wife died last year, his father died some months ago, his mother is in hospital and needs surgery that would cost Rs 3,000. The auto draws up in front of your friend's house. He stops and turns to look you full in the face. "And now my mother needs blood," he says, blinking back a tear, "for which I need Rs 300 urgently." You give him Rs 20 (which is Rs 8 more than he deserves since it's only minimum distance). The play ends in an anticlimax. The next time you're in Indiranagar, if a light-eyed man urges you to enter his auto, look the other way. On second thoughts, get in and match your wits with him. Find out how immune you are to the velvet touch.(Send your feedback to ckmeena@gmail.com)

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